Fairy Tale Lives of Celebrity Plutocrats

Andrew Carnegie & “Jack and the Beanstalk”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Since the appearance of Bruno Bettleheim’s The Uses of Enchantment,(1) more attention has been directed to the way fairy tales may be put to use in early education. Among other things, Bettleheim argues that fairy tales can supply plots which give order to the inchoate fantasy lives of children and that the tale’s heroes and heroines provide models that children can emulate when working through their own problems. Such pragmatic and therapeutic uses of the fairy tales are, however, not a boon available only to children; James Hilman, the Jungian therapist and thinker, explains that adults may use the tales for similar benefits.(2)

the “life-story” or “life-plot’ someone has chosen for himself

Besides suggesting ways to shape a life, fairy tales can also be used by psychological historians and biographers in a reverse fashion — to understand the ways a life was shaped or (to use the fashionable language of some recent bestsellers) to understand the “life-story” or “life-plot’ someone has chosen for himself. Perhaps no work lends itself so well to this technique as Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls,(3) a book that used to be quite popular in the early part of this century and was a familiar item in many school libraries. While lives are never so orderly and as free of clutter as a fairy tale, what is striking about Carnegie’s autobiography is how closely it resembles a familiar childhood story.

Credit: The Library of Congress.

You know the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk”: hard times force Jack’s family to sell their cow for some beans which turn out to be magical; plucky Jack climbs the beanstalk and somewhere in the sky he discovers the giant’s castle from which, on three trips, he steals a bag of gold, a goose that lays golden eggs, and a harp that plays itself; on the last trip, however, the giant gives chase, but Jack saves himself by chopping down the beanstalk and the giant crashes to his death. You know Jack’s story.(4) What you may not know is that it is also Andrew Carnegie’s.

Carnegie looked at the world and saw ladders, towers, mountains, inclines, problems to surmount, opportunities to ascend, and elevating pursuits

A child reading Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls cannot help but be impressed by how Carnegie speaks of climbing and air castles. If Don Quixote looked at windmills and saw challenging giants, Carnegie looked at the world and saw ladders, towers, mountains, inclines, problems to surmount, opportunities to ascend, and elevating pursuits. He had a topographical imagination, an aptitude for altitudes. One can only wonder if F. Scott Fitzgerald had Carnegie in mind when he wrote:
“Gatsby saw the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees — he could climb to it, if he climbed alone.”

Andy’s Air Castle

In his Own Story for Boys and Girls Carnegie reports that he was born of “poor but honest parents” in 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland. Like Jack’s, his family fell on hard times; the introduction of steam machinery threatened the livelihood of the town’s weavers, Carnegie’s family among them. While Carnegie makes no mention of selling their last cow for a handful of beans, his family had to borrow funds to move in Andy’s 13th year to Allegheny, Pennsylvania.

Andy did not forget Scotland, but he remembered one thing above all:

Where one is born is very important, for different surroundings and traditions appeal to and stimulate different latent tendencies. Ruskin truly observes that every bright boy in Edinburgh is influenced by the sight of the Castle. So is the child of Dunfermline, by its noble Abbey. . . and there, too, is Pittencrieff Glen, embracing Queen Margaret’s shrine and the ruins of King Malcolm’s tower, with which the old ballad of ‘Sir Patrick Spens’ begins:

The king sits in Dunfermline tower
Drinking the bluid red wine.

The odd fact is that the ballad does not begin that way. Through, perhaps, a revealing distortion of memory this Jack-of-the-beanstalk substituted the word “tower” for the original: “The King sits in Dunfermline town.” Professor John C. Van Dyke, who assisted Carnegie in the writing of his memoirs, pointed out the error, but Carnegie was apparently adamant. The only recourse left the ghost-writing professor was a footnote: “The Percy Reliques and The Oxford Book of Ballads gives ‘town’ instead of ‘tower’ but, Mr. Carnegie insisted it should be ‘tower.’”

“The talismanic letters on the Abbey tower — ‘King Robert the Bruce.’” Photo credit: thehistorylady.wordpress.com

Call it a Freudian slip, if you will, but what Carnegie remembered most of his Scottish hometown was its tower, abbey, and glen. Even during his first 14 years in America, this Jack would dream daily of his air castle: “Few days passed in which I did not see in my mind’s eye the talismanic letters on the Abbey tower — ‘King Robert the Bruce.’ All my recollections of childhood, all I knew of fairyland clustered around the old Abbey.”

Like Jack’s fairyland that lies at the top of the beanstalk, the tower and the Abbey may have seemed all the more tantalizing because they were out of reach. Carnegie’s relatives had led a rebellion to have the grounds turned over to the town, and this led to a lawsuit against their aristocratic owner. In return the Laird had ordered that no member of the Carnegie family was to be be allowed entrance to the grounds. Looking back at his youth Carnegie recalled how he would peer over the walls at this paradise and fondly stare up at its tower.

This is the inaccessible fairyland of which Carnegie would daily dream between the ages of 13 and 27. Such single-mindedness was certain to have its effect. Carnegie would find towers everywhere he looked, and he required of America only that it supply the ladders, the beanstalks, by which he could ascend and finally be admitted to his air castle. The conclusion of his Own Story for Boys and Girls makes clear that while he climbed many others, Carnegie counted his greatest success the day he scaled Dunfermline’s tower.

Three Trips Up the Beanstalk

In his analysis of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Bettleheim notes that there is a significance to the three things Jack brings back from his trips up the beanstalk.

  • First, he brings back a bag filled with gold, and this is satisfying for a time.
  • On his second trip, Jack brings back a goose that lays golden eggs; and Bettleheim points out that this is even better than the bag of gold because it provides a regular and more dependable means of satisfying physical needs.
  • Finally, Jack brings back the golden harp because of “the wish to find something better than material goods”; the harp “symbolizes beauty, art, the higher things in life.”(5)
  • Carnegie followed this same sequence. Before his philanthropy, Carnegie’s life divided into three stages: he was a wage-earner, then a capitalist, then a gentleman interested in the arts. When he first arrived in America he worked as a bobbin boy, but when he took a job at a telegraph office, Carnegie felt a distinct improvement: “I felt my foot was on the ladder and I was bound to climb.” This young breadwinner looked forward to the day that finally arrived — when he could bring a bag of gold down the ladder and plop it on his family’s table.

He soon went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad, a job he found all the more interesting because it frequently required his traveling over the Allegheny Mountains by means of inclines. The position also made it possible to move out of the city and, like Jack, improve the lot of his widowed mother:

“Any accurate description of Pittsburgh at that time would be set down as a piece of the grossest exaggeration. The smoke permeated and penetrated everything, if you placed your hand on the balustrade of the stair it came away black; if you washed face and hands they were dirty as ever in an hour. The soot gathered in the hair and irritated the skin. . . . We soon began to consider how to get to the country. We moved there at once. . . . Many of the wealthy families of this district [Homewood] had their residences in this delightful suburb. It was, so to speak, the aristocratic quarter.”

Having won his bag of gold, Carnegie decided to return and confront Scotland. Feeling very much like a giant himself, he was puzzled by the way the city of his childhood now struck him. Dunfermline seemed to have shrunk, to have become “a city of Lilliputians . . . . Everything was in miniature . . . But one object remained all that I had dreamed of it. There was no disappointment in the glorious old Abbey and its Glen. It was big enough and grand enough, and the memorable carved letters on top of the tower — ’King Robert the Bruce’ filled my heart as of old.”

“Here’s the goose that lays golden eggs”

One trip up the beanstalk was not enough for Jack. A bag of gold was fine, but what he wanted was something more regular. And so, Carnegie changed from wage-earner to capitalist. He had learned the value of investment early in his life, he explained, when he received his first dividend check: “Eureka!’ I cried. ‘Here’s the goose that lays golden eggs.”

T he Lucy Furnace at the Carnegie Steel Duquesne Works. Photo credit: brooklineconnection.com.

Noting that “tall oaks from little acorns grow,” Carnegie invested his capital and founded the Keystone Bridge Company in 1863. It was “uphill work” for a few years, he reports, but after that it was “smooth sailing” and the Bridge Company became the Iron Works. With his furnaces laying golden eggs on a regular basis, Carnegie could afford a vacation and went again to confront Europe. The way he spent his time was revealing: “in all the enthusiasm of youth” he “climbed every spire, slept on mountain-tops,” and ended his journey at the top of that sulphurous furnace of Europe — ”upon Vesuvius.”

But golden eggs were not enough for jack. As Bettelheim notes, Jack began to long for the higher things in life and climbed the beanstalk once again for the harp that played itself. Europe seems to have had the same effect on Carnegie:

“This visit to Europe proved more instructive. Up to this time I had known nothing of painting or sculpture, but it was not long before I could classify the works of great painters. One may not at the time justly appreciate the advantages he is receiving from examining the great masterpieces, but upon his return to America he will find himself unconsciously rejecting what before seemed truly beautiful, and judging productions which come before him by a new standard. That which is truly great has so impressed itself upon him that what is false or pretentious proves no longer attractive.”

“a new ladder upon which to climb upward.”

Listening to Wagner’s Lohengrin in New York, Carnegie would discover the answer to the dissatisfaction he felt upon his return to America: “Here was genius, indeed, differing from all before, a new ladder upon which to climb upward.” A year after his European trip Carnegie would draft his strategy in that famous memorandum to himself discovered after his death:

St. Nicholas Hotel, New York
December, 1868
Thirty-three and an income of $50,000 per annum! By this time two years [sic] I can so arrange all my business as to secure at least $50,000 per annum. Beyond this never earn — make no effort to increase fortune, but spend the surplus each year for benevolent purposes. Cast aside business forever, except for others.
Settle in Oxford and get a thorough education, making the acquaintance of literary men — this will take three years’ active work — pay especial attention to speaking in public. Settle then in London and purchase a controlling interest in some newspaper or live review and give the general management of it attention, taking a part in public matters, especially those connected with education and improvement of the poorer classes.
Man must have an idol — the amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry — no idol more debasing than the worship of money. Whatever I engage in I must push inordinately; therefore should I be careful to choose that life which will be the most elevating in its character. To continue much longer overwhelmed by business cares and with most of my thoughts wholly upon the way to make more money in the shortest time, must degrade me beyond hope of permanent recovery. I will resign business at thirty-five, but during the ensuing two years I wish to spend the afternoons in receiving instruction and in reading systematically.

Chopping Down the Beanstalk and Giant

After he seized the harp, Jack descended the beanstalk and chopped it down. Carnegie did the same thing. He turned to philanthropy. Carnegie believed that every man should grow and climb his own beanstalk. He was a Social Darwinian. He felt that it was in Society’s interest that only the fittest made it to the top. And so he was opposed to inherited wealth and spoke often of “the advantages of poverty.” Rather than have others depend on his wealth, he disposed of it.

But Carnegie did not simply give his money away. He became a philanthropist. He didn’t want to help just the poor but only those who would help themselves. He gave away seeds, the makings of ladders, so that individuals might climb as he did. The inscription on the first library he gave to the public speaks of “the precious treasures of knowledge and imagination through which youth may ascend.” The money he gave to Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes was meant to “promote the elevation of the colored races we formerly kept in slavery.”

But what of the giant Jack slayed? Carnegie said his boyhood dream was “to grow up and kill a king.”(6) Where, then, was the king for this Jack to slay? Certainly not in America. Carnegie found in America everything he required of a country — no royal family, no aristocracy, no established church. He even found in Lincoln a president without kingly airs, with no notion of Carnegie’s sense of altitudes; when they met, what impressed Carnegie was that Lincoln’s “attentions were not graduated. They were the same to all, as deferential in talking to the messenger boy as to Secretary Seward.”

Where, then, were the kings for this Jack to slay? the giants to be brought down? Carnegie traveled to Europe and did what he could to meddle in politics. He not only preached The Gospel of Wealth but, in the words of the title of another of his books, he argued for Triumphant Democracy. He tried, for example, to ally himself with William Gladstone to create a British Republic by toppling the House of Lords and abolishing the monarchy. When he was not successful, he turned in his later years to his last anarchistic gesture — buying away the castles of noblemen.

It was in this way that Carnegie came to own that Scottish castle in the air he always dreamed of and that tower he had spent his life climbing. Remembering his childhood, he would reveal the personal importance of his purchase of the abbey, tower, and glen of his birthplace:

“It had always meant paradise to the child of Dunfermline. It certainly did to me. When I heard of paradise, I translated the word into Pittencrieff. . . Its Laird was to us children the embodiment of rank and wealth . . In all my childhood’s — yes and in my early manhood’s — air-castle building (which was not small), nothing comparable in grandeur approach Pittencrieff.”

But stranger than his ability to buy paradise, was the fact that this purchase made Carnegie, the king-slayer, a member of the nobility. Even in his Own Story for Boys and Girls Carnegie can scarcely contain himself when telling how he received word of his purchase in a telegram that began “Hail, Laird of Pittencrieff . I was the happy possessor of the grandest title on earth in my estimation. The king — well, he was only the King. He didn’t own King Malcolm’s Tower or St. Margaret’s shrine, nor Pittencrieff Glen. Not he, poor man. I did.”

It may have been this strange inconsistency in an avowed king-slayer which led Mark Twain to say of Carnegie: “He thinks he is a scorner of kings and emperors and dukes, whereas he is like the rest of the human race: a slight attention from one of these makes him drunk for a week and keeps his tongue wagging for years.”(7) Nonetheless, Carnegie held on to the belief that he was a king-slayer and a Jack that had toppled a giant. The proof he offered was that he had taken Pittencrieff Glen from the nobility and made it into a public park. He called this “the most soul satisfying gift I ever made.”

Jack’s toppling of the giant had been an act of revenge since the giant had stolen the bag of gold, the egg-laying goose, and the self-playing harp from Jack’s father. Carnegie saw his purchase in the same way. “It is poetic justice,” he wrote, that a son of that family which had not been allowed to enter Pittencrieff “should arise and dispossess the lairds, should become the agent for conveying the Glen and Park to the people of Dunfermline forever.”

With this act the story of Andy and the Beanstalk, Andrew Carnegie’sOwn Story for Boys and Girls, ends. But Carnegie says it better: “It is a true romance, which no air-castle can quite equal or fiction conceive. The hand of destiny seems to hover over it, and I hear something whispering: ‘Not altogether in vain have you lived — not altogether in vain.’ This is the crowning mercy of my career! Truly the whirligig of time brings in some strange revenges.”

  1. Bettelheim, B. The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Random House, 1976).
    2. See Hilman, James “A Note on Story” in Children’s Literature (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974), Vol. 3, pp. 9–11.
    3. Andrew Carnegie’s Own Story for Boys and Girls (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1920) comprises a series of chapters from The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie“ condensed and edited for younger readers by Eva March Tappan, Ph.D.”
    4. Like other fairy tales, “Jack and the Beanstalk” was originally a story handed down in the oral tradition. In this essay, I depend upon the traditional version of the tale essentially told in Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales.
    5. Bettleheim, p. 191.
    6. See Carnegie, Andrew. The Gospel of Wealth and Other Timely Essays, ed. Edward C. Kirkland (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1965), xiii.
    7. Mark Twain in Eruption, ed. Bernard de Voto (New York, 1940), p. 42; cited in Robert Green McCloskey’s American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise, 1865–1910 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 137.

This essay originally appeared in Children’s Literature in Education, 13, 4 (Winter 1982) (available with subscription.

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19. December 2016 by
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